Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Constructivizing the Common Core, II

Vague guidelines dictated from on high tend to empower rather than challenge the Powers that Be. In the world of education, the Powers that Be are those pushing Constructivism, a teaching ideology at great odds with empirical findings about how children learn. And the vague guidelines are the Common Core Standards for K12 education. As I and others have noted (most recently Barry Garelick at the, the new Common Core Standards already appear to be enabling further penetration of Constructivism into America's classrooms.

A number of people who commented on Barry Garelick's article took issue with this, defending the Common Core as not favoring any particular educational ideology. But what matters is actual, not potential interpretation--and specifically interpretation by those in power.  For this, one need look no further than the most recent Education Week.

Consider, for example, Edweek's article on the Common Core language arts standards, which call for an emphasis on reading and writing in all academic subjects.

What the Common Core Standards for English and Language Arts actually say in terms of goals for interdisciplinary literacy is mostly innocuous, unless you find these disturbing in their extreme obviousness: the ability to cite textual evidence, determine central ideas, follow multi-step directions, understand key terms, distinguish facts from speculation, and (drumroll!) read at grade level in all subjects.

Just a few goals show Constructivist influences: integrating verbal information with information from charts or diagrams (Constructivists love "visual representations"), and analyzing the author's organization and purpose (Constructivists are obsessed with making students write about authors' intent).

But, when it comes to the Constructivists and the Common Core, author intent may be totally irrelevant.  The Edweek article opens with the following Common Core-inspired practices:

The 4th graders in Mason A. Kuhn's classroom recently wrapped up an unusual assignment: Write a science-themed book and make the target audience not their teacher but 2nd graders at Shell Rock Elementary in northeastern Iowa. One student wrote and illustrated a cartoon about a feline named Space Kat trying to figure out how to power up her rocket ship to get back home. Along the way, the story explored concepts such as gravity and friction.

At Lewis County High School in Vanceburg, Ky., science teacher Sara M. Poeppelman asks her chemistry students to closely read and analyze an essay Albert Einstein penned in 1946 for a popular science magazine.
It's one thing to make sure students understand their science textbooks; quite another to take time away from science for drawing cartoons about science concepts for 2nd graders and writing about science writing. Is this what the authors of the Common Core Standards for English and Language Arts intend?

If not, it is their responsibility to look at what's happening and say so.


Anonymous said...

While I am not fond of Common Core, explaining a concept so it is understandable to younger students, whether a comic strip or not, requires a good understanding of the concept. Drawing comics is a bit of a waste of time, but maybe no worse than this predilection for power point, and maybe the student was more comfortable with hand drawing than power point (hopefully he had a choice for how to present the material), and if you go on to get a PhD in science, which may be the only way to really make any money in a science field unless you want to be stuck making not much more than minimum wages as a lab assistant, you are going to have to teach. And write. Explain things to kids/students who do not understand what you understand yet.

Analyzing scientific articles when doing research is also important. Do the conclusions follow from the data? Are the data presented in an objective way or in a way that sort of skews it to lead the reader to the desired conclusion. Can the experiment be repeated? though I do not know if the Einstein essay is a scientific article and exactly what way it was analyzed, but I am not sure a student at that level can really analyze a scientific article unless it is pretty basic material, it might have to be from a popular magazine. Or they could analyze a so-called scientific support of something in advertisement or science for a constituency. I have seen some real doozies, where if you go to the original, what the popular article is saying is not at all what the original research concluded (plus the touched up the photos). Hopefully they are not analyzing it for literary style but rather for content.

Whether this is the best way to spend time in science class before going to college, I do not know, but both of these exercises could lead to a deeper understanding of the concepts being studied.

And science textbooks are not always factual either. But a student would not know where it is stretching things I guess.

kcab said...

My kid's schools seem to be the antithesis of Constructivist, especially math (and not necessarily in a good way), but my middle-schooler is getting hit by a similar type of assignment. He's supposed to write a book for his math class, and part of it is supposed to involve a particular concept that has been covered in class already.

I don't really like the assignment in general, but I'm also concerned because this is a class in which he's subject-accelerated and is 2 grades behind and as much as 4 years younger than the majority of his classmates. For math itself this difference doesn't present a problem, but his writing is on grade level and he'll probably be dinged for that. I'm concerned that this spreading out of language arts to all subject areas will end up restricting the ability of students to work at the appropriate level in other subjects.

Katharine Beals said...

"I'm concerned that this spreading out of language arts to all subject areas will end up restricting the ability of students to work at the appropriate level in other subjects." Very important point. And I wonder whether that's part of a deliberate strategy used to limit acceleration to an increasingly narrowly defined "gifted" population.